Awakin Calls » Sister Marilyn Lacey
Sister Marilyn Lacey: Catholic nonprofit leader, visionary, author
“One way of measuring whether our love is genuine…is to examine how far we've extended the boundaries that determine whom we are willing to be in relationship with. When these borders reach out as far as they can go, there will be no one left outside, there will be no one cursed. There will be no more strangers. Everyone will be welcome.” ~ Sister Lacey
Sister Marilyn Lacey is the founder and executive director of Mercy Beyond Borders, a non-profit organization that partners with displaced women and children overseas to alleviate their poverty. For 25 years, Sister Lacey has worked with refugees in the U.S., Africa, and Southeast Asia. She has dedicated her life to making the world a more welcoming place for persons forced to leave their homelands because of war or persecution. For many years she directed programs for refugees and immigrants, including the resettlement of the Lost Boys of Sudan at Catholic Charities in San Jose. In 2001, Lacey was honored by the Dalai Lama as an "Unsung Hero of Compassion” for her life of service with refugees.
Born in San Francisco, Lacey joined the Sisters of Mercy in 1966 and became a high school math and theology teacher. In 1979, she volunteered at the San Francisco International Airport, helping refugees from Southeast Asia make their connecting flights to the communities in America where they were being resettled. This set in motion a career change for Sister Lacey and thrust her into international refugee work, initially in the Lao-Thai border camps, and later in Africa. Lacey has spent time in war-ravaged places, including the Lao-Thai border, Sudanese and Somali camps in Kenya, and with internally displaced persons in the Eastern Equatoria region of Sudan.
In 1984, Sister Lacey obtained a master's degree in social work (M.S.W.) from the University of California, Berkeley. While a graduate student there, she wrote a paper discussing the shifts in U.S. refugee policies since World War II; in 1987 it was published as Chapter 1 in an anthology titled People in Upheaval. Lacey also conducted a national study of Vietnamese AmerAsian refugee youth, In Our Fathers’ Land, that was published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1986 and distributed to refugee resettlement sites nationwide.
In 1985, she became Director of Refugee Services for Catholic Charities in San Jose, California. Catholic Charities provides refugee resettlement services, employment placement for newcomers, foster care for refugee minors, and legal assistance to immigrants. During her tenure, Catholic Charities expanded its immigration programs to include services for language and financial literacy, naturalization, family visa petitions, political asylum, deportation defense, and help to those who could not afford private legal counsel. Her office was involved in the 1986 amnesty program and provided education and public awareness regarding Proposition 187. She has also served as a member of the Board of Directors for Mercy Housing California and for Mercy Hospital, Bakersfield.
After 21 years of working for Catholic Charities, Lacey started Mercy Beyond Borders in 2008; its mission is to partner with displaced women and children overseas in ways that help them move up from extreme poverty. Lacey explains that the work of Mercy Beyond Borders (MBB) began in South Sudan because it was “by far the most devastated place I’d ever seen in my decades of doing refugee work.” In 2012, MBB expanded into Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake that killed a quarter-million people. Mercy Beyond Borders brings hope to more than 1,400 woman and girls annually, but her work is not about the number of people served; it is in emphasizing the inherent value that each person has, regardless of traditions or cultural norms.
In 2009 Ave Maria Press published her memoir This Flowing Toward Me: A Story of God Arriving in Strangers, an account of Lacey’s journey working with refugees. She tells the story of how she became a citizen of the world and how she developed a more intimate relationship with God. She lets the refugees tell their own stories and interlaces them with the humor and wisdom of her own experiences. She stubbornly questions God about allowing suffering to the people she comes to love deeply, and ultimately comes to hear God’s loving response. “Despite our persistent and stubborn expectations to the contrary, God never promises to take away our pain, but rather pledges to remain close to us in the midst of it,” she reflects. “The prophets invite us to ‘call his name Emmanuel, which means, God With Us’ (Is 7:14). We have God’s word on it: ‘Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age’ (Mt 28:20).”
In 2011, Lacey received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Saint Joseph's College of Maine. In 2017 she was the recipient of the Opus Prize from Regis University in Denver, Colorado, which carries with it a $1 million stipend for her work. In 2018, Lacey was celebrated by The Canales Project, along with former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, former First Lady Michelle Obama, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor for their exceptional achievements and contributions. The honor was presented in a concert of 21 original songs composed for each of the inspirational women. The event, titled “Hear Her Song,” was held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Composer Anna Dagmar wrote the song titled “Mercy” for Sister Lacey based on her responses to interview questions about her work with MBB. Poet Jacqueline Suskin provided inspiration for the composer by writing verses based on her reading of the interviews.
“I didn’t set out to be a leader,” Sister Marilyn says. “I just saw what needed doing and I did it.” Lacey answered God’s call and demonstrates God in action as Love: “Love does not isolate or insulate; love chooses to be with. Love does not coerce; it can only invite. God waits: ‘Here I stand, knocking at the door. If anyone hears me calling and opens the door, | will enter the house and sup with her, and she with me’ (Rev 3:20).”
Sister Marilyn is a lifelong believer of helping through listening. She accepted her call from God, not to save people, but to be with them and help bring them hope.
Join us in conversation with this inspirational, devoted servant and compassionate leader!
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